Most of the brown mixing examples I use here use paint as the medium. Everything you learn here can be certainly be applied to drawing or even graphical media as well. If you’re into colored pencils, pastels, or even graphic design, stick around this all applies to you too!
Table of Contents
What Color is Brown Exactly?
Before you attempt to make brown paint you really should understand what brown is. Unfortunately the term brown is an extremely vague term. Every time somebody calls something “brown” they can be referring to any number of colors.
Browns can be light, dark, or even medium in value. Brown colors can also be considered cooler or warmer. I’ll refer to the color temperature of brown later.
So, what color is brown?
All of your brown colors come from the side of the color wheel that encompasses yellow through red and can even include some hues slightly outside of this range. Some might even call these the warm hues or warm colors.
By using this logic brown can be yellow. Some browns are yellow-orange. Many browns are red-orange and of course a brown can be orange in color too!
To fully understand this colorful phenomenon we need to examine one of the lesser understood properties of color which is saturation!
Saturation: the Key to Understanding Brown Colors
Color has three measurable properties that make it recognizable to our eyes and brains.
- Saturation (also called chroma)
Hue denotes a color’s placement on the color wheel.
Value describes a color’s lightness (white & black being the extremes).
Saturation defines how pure, intense or vibrant a color is.
This illustration explains saturation well…
In the illustration above the red star on the left is 100% saturated while the last star on the right contains no saturation at all. Of course we have plenty of various saturation percentages in between which we can and should certainly use in our artwork. Some of these are represented by the stars located in between the two ends in the example above.
How does this saturation business help me make brown?
Most of your brown colors are warm hues of decreased saturation.
Yep, that’s a mouthful for sure so let’s examine that last statement…
If we take a color from the yellow through red range on the color wheel and decrease its saturation we will get a brown color!
We can also alter its value to make the brown lighter or darker too which is what I’ll be demonstrating with actual paint in a few moments.
How to Make Brown
There’s plenty of ways to arrive at a brown color. I’ll certainly cover some of the more complex ways later (and answer any questions in the comments section too). But for now I’m going to explain putting together brown colors by using a warm hue with the addition of black and white paint.
Let’s make some brown paint…
For this example I’ll be using the following tubes of acrylic paint.
You can use any painting medium you’d like of course. (oils, acrylic, tempera, watercolor, gouache)
STEP ONE: Pick a color that resides from yellow to red on the color wheel. I’m choosing orange paint.
STEP TWO: Use your black and white paint to mix up a gray. Adjust the value of that gray so that it approximates the value of your orange paint. (add more white or black to adjust)
Just to make this important step clear; we don’t want just any random gray. We want a gray that is the same value as your orange (or other color).
A quick grayscale representation of the two paint blobs side by side can help us out!
After looking at a grayscale photo of the two paints we can see that the orange is slightly darker. Let’s make our gray paint a wee bit darker to match the value of the orange paint.
Let’s check out the colors side by side…
That looks better. let’s compare a black and white photo of them…
Perfect! Now we’ll be able to reduce the saturation of our orange paint without adjusting its value.
STEP THREE: Take a portion of your gray paint and add it to your orange paint. As you mix the paint together you’ll notice that the orange become duller. It’s important to add small amounts of gray at a time and not overdo it. Otherwise you end of with something too gray.
Here’s my the paint completely mixed together and sitting next to the original orange paint:
As you can see, simply reducing the saturation of orange did result in a brown color! Some might call it tan in color, but now you know that the color you are looking at is nothing more than a low-saturation orange.
STEP FOUR: From here you can adjust the value of the newly created brown color. Simply add white to lighten it or black to make a dark brown. If at any time you feel your brown is becoming too gray (too little saturation) simply add some more orange paint into the mix!
I chose orange as my base color for this brown mixing example but you can and should go through the same process with :
This way you can start seeing brown for what it really is… an actual hue and not just “brown”. As a result you’ll begin to see where brown belongs on the color wheel!
Brown Mixing Exercises (Challenges!)
I’ve got some fantastic paint mixing exercises that will help you really understand your paints. It’s a paint mixing challenge of sorts but challenges are good right? They help us grow as an artist!
Locate some of the pre-made browns in your paint box. Some artists refer to these browns as earth tones. Why? These colors traditionally got their pigmentation via naturally occurring deposits in the earth. They’re typically various manifestations of iron oxides that were mined from the earth.
You probably have some popular tubes of brown paint such as:
- Yellow ochre
- Burnt Umber
- Raw Umber
- Burnt Sienna
- Raw Sienna
Here’s your challenge: Try to match each of your earth tones by starting with a pure, saturated color and only adding various amounts of white and black. You might even have to adjust your hue as well. For example, you might have to add a tiny amount of orange to your yellow if you need to adjust the yellow hue over to a yellow-yellow-orange hue!
To make your earth color more readable you can add a tiny fraction of white to it. (less than 5% white) This will open up the color make the particular brown more opaque and easier to match.
Watch me do it here with some of my paints. I’m going to try and match my tube of burnt sienna.
Pictured below is me adding a tiny amount of white to burnt sienna – this is the brown color I’m going to attempt to match!
So here I go… Let’s see if I can match this swatch of burnt sienna!
I’ll be using: Cadmium red + cadmium orange + white + black
Using a red orange I’ll reduce its saturation and adjust its value so that it starts looking like my painted sample of burnt sienna that I placed on my palette. Below is my red-orange before I added my gray to it.
I took that red-orange mixture and mixed gray into it to reduce its saturation and black to darken it.
Let’s see how I did? The real burnt sienna is on the palette and my paint mixture is on the palette knife above it.
Not bad, but my brown mixture looks a bit light in value and there is too much red in there. I can do better by darkening the paint and adding a tiny amount of cadmium orange to the mixture…
This time I think I’ve mixed a fairly accurate match. Check out the comparison below!
The Results & Benefits of an Exercise Like This: I now know that burnt sienna is nothing more than red-orange! Going through this exercise proved it. And to be extremely precise, burnt sienna is a slightly duller (decreased saturation), slightly darker variety of red-orange.
Pretty cool huh?
Just to recap… To make my own color that matched burnt sienna… I mixed cadmium red with cadmium orange to get the correct hue: red-orange. I controlled the saturation via the gray that I pre-mixed before adding it to the red orange. Finally I used black to darken the value of the final brown mixture.
Very logical, just the way I like it.
Making Brown From Primary Colors (without black)
I know some painters don’t like using black in their paintings. For the sake of really understanding what’s going on with your paint mixtures it would be wise to look the other way on your philosophy for now and go through those exercises above using black paint.
But, you’ve been reading this far so I’ll amuse you further!
You can work with primary colors to make various brown colors. It will require you to think a little further about what’s happening with your paint mixtures and will also introduce some hue-change complexities that you may not be aware of.
Let’s establish a few colorful characteristics and we’ll be fabricating brown in no time!
- Complementary colors have the ability to decrease each other’s saturation when mixed together.
- Finding exact Complementary colors is really difficult to do in practice.
- The real primary colors are Magenta, Cyan & Yellow (not red & blue)
Alright, let’s have a go at this.
If I want to make a brown color from yellow (without black) I will do this:
- Locate its complement on the color wheel (in this case purple)
- Make purple by mixing cyan + magenta
- Begin lowering the saturation of yellow by adding small amounts of purple at a time.
- Lighten up the yellow-brown with white as needed
That’s really it for creating a brown quickly with only primary colors. In theory this is super easy to do, but in real world practice you’ll quickly notice a few flaws in this method.
Flaw #1: Hue Shifts – Yep, your purple and yellow are probably not perfect complements and as such you will not only be altering your saturation (lowering yellow’s saturation) but you’ll inadvertently be shifting the brown’s hue as well. If the purple is more of a red-purple your yellow will become more yellow-orange. If the purple is more of a blue-purple, well then your yellow becomes more of a yellow green.
Just be sensitive to these hue shifts in your color mixing experiments and adjust accordingly.
Flaw #2: Value Changes – Because our complementary colors (yellow + purple) are not the same value, the yellow brown we are creating will get darker as we add more purple to the yellow. This is why adding a value-matched gray to the hue is a far more predictable way to reduce a color’s saturation!
Flaw#3: How to Darken? – If you refuse to use black paint, how on earth are you going to darken your brown? Take the brown by means of yellow + purple for example. You’ll end up with a brown that’s more or less light in value. If you add more purple you’ll mix a color that looks too purple. Most artists try to solve this darkening problem by throwing a bunch of darker hues at the paint mixture but this leads to an awful lot of drastic hue shifts.
Man, just get over it and use black paint already. When used properly your artwork will be easier to create and look amazing!
By the way, I never used to use black paint and changed my philosophy, you can read about it here.
Painting With Browns: Best Practices
I keep a full range of browns on my palette that span from yellow to red. These naturally occurring earth tones are my go to source when I need a brown paint. I have a knowledge of each brown’s hue, value and saturation level right from the start. As such I choose the color most suitable and alter it as needed.
I can, for example make a burnt sienna more saturated by adding red-orange to it. If I need to paint a dark, low-saturation yellow-yellow-orange I simply reach for my raw umber as a starting point. You guessed it… raw umber is a low-chroma, dark-valued yellow-ish color!
Staying orderly and logical I arrange my earth tones in spectrum order from yellow through red on my palette.
Checkout this close up of my palette showcasing my typical arrangement of brown paints:
Going from right to left I’ve placed Terra Rosa, Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna, Yellow Ochre, and Raw Umber. Next comes my neutral colors and then my more saturated colors which can’t be seen in this photo.
The Color Temperature of Brown
You’ll occasionally hear painters talk about one brown being warmer or cooler than another. This can mean different things to different artists but you’ll most often find that artists describe color temperature by comparison.
For example, one might say that burnt umber is warmer than raw umber. This is because the burnt umber is closer to red as far as the color spectrum is concerned while raw umber sits closer to yellow. A similar case can be made for burnt sienna vs. raw sienna.
Don’t worry too much about color temperature. You’d be better off learning the actual hues of each of your brown colors. In other words, where does each brown exist on the color wheel?
Have some questions? Ask away in the comment section below.